To receive a sample of my book, The Three Pillars of Zion, click here.
Have you ever aspired to become a writer? Here is a talk I gave to the award-winning student writers of the Granite School District in Salt Lake City.
I became a writer in an atypical way. Since 1978 I was a publisher. Over the years I published magazines, art prints, books and music. Additionally, I produced a stage play and an extensive children’s audio series. For nine years I was the publisher of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir Performance Library.
Over the years I have published or produced some 600 products and worked with many world-class artists. I think I am one of a handful of people in our LDS market who has had such widespread exposure to the arts as a business and to artists as wholly unique personalities.
Somewhere along the way to my becoming a writer, I read To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. It became my favorite book. Even now, whenever I want a crash course in writing I reread that marvelous story. I consider it perfect—not one word too many or too few; nothing misplaced.
Because of that book I fell in love with first person fiction, which has become my “voice.” Of course first person is very had to write because of the inherent point-of-view challenge: everything that happens must be experienced by the main character. For me, however, first person offers some intriguing opportunities to form a bond with the reader and drive home highly emotional issues. (You know how you feel when a friend opens his soul to you and shares something deeply personal.)
I am often asked the question: How do you become a published author? My answer is write a hit book and get a good agent. A simplistic answer? Not necessarily. Getting published can be brutal. Publishers have to—and want to!—make money. Period. That’s not to say that they wouldn’t like to provide a service in the process, but, at the end of the day, profit drives their decision.
However, I have to say something in the publisher’s defense: They have a right to want to make a profit for taking a risk. Remember, when you submit a manuscript to a publisher you are asking the company to believe in you and your work enough to invest thousands of production and promotional dollars.
Here’s another thing to remember: a publishing company typically functions with a small, overworked staff. Consequently, editors DO NOT and CANNOT read the myriad manuscripts that are submitted. In the national market, except in rare circumstances, they rely on professional literary agents to sift through material and glean the gems. Literary agents are overwhelmed with manuscripts from which they have to choose carefully. They only get paid if they place a book. Therefore, the hardest sale you ever make will be to an agent.
Here’s another question asked of me: Where do hit ideas come from? From life, of course. I don’t know any writer or artist so brilliant that he/she can dream up something that has not originated in personal experience. Be observant and keep a journal: even little things can be turned into major stories.
Here’s another point: Contrast makes for good storytelling. You must be able to honestly explore the extremes of life or your story is vanilla. Contrasting good fortune with adversity must be believable, and that comes from experience. Adversity can be a writer’s best friend. So document the bad days and enjoy the pain!
I’ll share with you some pain that I experienced and wove into a story. When I was young, my parents divorced. The disintegration of a marriage, as many of you know, can be as painful as death…it is a type of death. Divorce is also very confusing, especially to children. Sometimes loyalties are divided, but hopefully not for too long. Emotions can run high. Often things are said that you wish you could take back. Scars can last a lifetime. Years after you’re sure you have dealt with all the fallout, ripple effects can still swamp your relationship and security boats.
I was a child of divorce. In an effort to cope with the pain, I used to play a mind game with myself. Here is the scenario: My parents are in a barn that is on fire. They have fallen unconscious, and the barn is beginning to collapse. I am standing outside and realize that I can only save one. Which will I choose?
Of course the scenario is unthinkable—from a literary point of view, it is meant to be. For nineteen years I played that scene over and over in my mind and could not come up with a satisfactory answer. How could anyone make such a difficult choice? I couldn’t choose based on love because I loved them equally.
I decided to add a twist: What if one person was good and the other was bad? Wouldn’t that make my choice easier? Sadly no, I had to admit. Despite their actions, I still would love them equally. This mental exercise forced me to expand my preconceived boundaries of love, and thus through a painful personal experience the foundational story for The Mourning Dove was born. That book went on to sell over 200,000 copies in six languages.
In developing The Mourning Dove, I needed a metaphor or some dramatic element that would drive the story from beginning to end. I found this element in another painful experience from the days of my youth in Boise, Idaho.
When I was twelve years old, I joined a local Boys Scouts troop, which I soon discovered was more or less a hunting club and an auto-mechanics class. (Fortunately, my sons have joined much better groups.) I was not mechanically inclined, so I tried to fit into the hunting part of the troop.
Boise lies in a beautiful green valley that is surrounded by desert and tumbleweeds. The desert is home to thousands of ground squirrels. A favorite entertainment of the scouts was to venture into the desert and practice marksmanship…on ground squirrels. I thought the idea sounded fantastic. My dad had a 22-caliber rifle, and I begged him to let me use it to hunt ground squirrels with the other boys. He refused. I persisted. Finally, I wore him down. But he relented with a warning that I wouldn’t like it. Of course I knew he was wrong. After all, I was twelve and had begun to realize that Dad didn’t know very much.
But he knew enough to not let me hunt with the scouts. He would take me hunting. It would be my first hunting trip.
One Saturday, armed and excited, I walked into the Boise desert with Dad near my side. Suddenly, twenty yards away, a ground squirrel appeared on top of its mound. I froze. The ground squirrel stood erect and still. It wasn’t afraid of me; it didn’t attempt to run. I lifted the rifle, took careful aim, and squeezed the trigger. The gun kicked into my shoulder. The loud crack reverberated out across the desert. I looked toward the mound. The ground squirrel was dead—I had shot it right through the head.
My first reaction was elation. I’d done it! I’d never shot a gun before.
What a lucky shot! I handed the gun to Dad and ran to claim my prize. Soon I was standing over the lifeless body of the ground squirrel. Just as I was admiring my kill, I heard sounds coming from deep inside the mound. Tiny sounds. Pups! Suddenly I felt sick. I realized I had just killed their mother. And I had done it for the worst of reasons…entertainment.
That day I learned something about the sanctity of life. I lost my desire to hurt anyone or anything. That painful lesson became the metaphor I needed for my story. Of course I couldn’t call my book The Ground Squirrel, so I decided to have my main character shoot a mourning dove. Painful life experiences can become the fodder for good stories…but you don’t have to go out and shoot something to get material for your book!
Art is an outgrowth of something good or bad that occupies an artist’s thoughts and feelings. In other words, an artist has to think it and feel it before he can render it. That single idea should strike every would-be artist with awe and horror! Over the past thirty years, I have been fortunate to work closely with many world-class good-thinking artists who create their art from deeply spiritual feelings…and they often pay a tremendous price to interpret those feelings. From these long associations, I have made some observations—not necessarily scientific ones—these are simply my personal observations.
- Innate Talent. Either you have it or you don’t. Your talent, that spark of genius, was born with you. It is a natural part of you, an innate ability, although you may not have discovered it yet. If you think about this concept, you should immediately be able to think of some examples. For instance, you know many people who can sing, but some people can really sing. There are dancers, and then there are dancers.
Go down the list: painters, sculptors, orators, teachers, administrators, businessmen…and writers. It is my belief that everyone in this world has been born with an innate talent or ability that they cannot—or should not—explain by their own hard work. I know this idea may fly in the face of our culture’s cherished belief: “By hard work comes all good things.” Sorry! It ain’t necessarily so.
Hard work DOES NOT create talent; hard work develops talent that already exists. Many good things—more than we may want to admit—are given to us; we cannot honestly point to cause and effect. These good things are inexplicable in everyday terms. They cannot be duplicated. Clearly, they are gifts. Once you accept that fact, you have to acknowledge the Source of your gift.
By the way, it’s not arrogant to admit that you have a God-given talent—all the great artists I know humbly acknowledge that God is the Giver of their gift. In fact, it is the arrogant artist who claims that he alone is the author of his gift. Now, admitting such a gift can be as difficult as admitting a weakness—but both are intended to drive you to your knees. Why? Because once you admit that Someone has singled you out and handed you a rare gift, you will be forced to ask yourself why? Why me? What is expected in return?
If you are willing to put forth a concerted effort to get the answer, you will come to an interesting conclusion. I’ll save you some time. The answer is responsibility and accountability. That’s right. Responsibility and accountability accompany the gift of talent.
Let me clarify something before I go on: You may not have yet discovered your talent. You may need trusted parents, friends or teachers to help you recognize your potential and draw it out of you. Let them help, and don’t get discouraged. Remember, Einstein started out by failing math.
- Responsibility to develop your talent. The great artists of my acquaintance carry a burden. None of them take their gift lightly. They feel an obligation to work hard to develop their talent and fulfill the purposes for which it was given. I am no different; I have always felt a responsibility to develop my talent. But I needed a teacher. So do you.
My writing teacher was Eileen Kump. At age 45, I became her student. She had long since retired from teaching and editing, but she knew her craft better than anyone I have ever known. Eileen was gently ruthless, just what I needed…and wanted. Eileen was a wise teacher. She knew how to balance compliments with constructive criticism. If I ever became discouraged, it was short-lived; Eileen knew how to dangle a carrot, but also she never let me think I had arrived.
I would send her pages and she would kindly return them torn to shreds. No sentence survived her editorial eye. The pages looked as though they were bleeding red ink. My entire purpose in life was to gain her approval, but thankfully, she seldom gave it. Here are a few things she taught me (this is not an inclusive list):
- Be editable—the best writers are rewriters.
- Endure editing. It may feel like surgery without anesthesia, but the end result will be a more healthy manuscript.
- Don’t fall in love with your work; it will be changed.
- Congratulations come after your work is in print. Until then, everything is open to criticism. A good writer will not seek or accept congratulations until the appropriate time.
- Great writers use few adverbs and adjectives (I still struggle with this rule). Place the weight of your sentence on the verb.
- Don’t repeat yourself; don’t be redundant. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist the temptation.)
- Don’t write the first word of your story until you outline it first.
- Trust your readers to fill in the blanks. A little description goes a long way.
- Pacing! Don’t let the reader bump on descriptions, flashbacks, asides, pontificating, etc.
- Show, don’t tell. “His cheeks turned red.” vs. “He was embarrassed.” Telling is lazy.
- Don’t preach. The story is the message. Sermons are for pulpits—and everyone would rather hear a story anyway.
- Economy of language. Say it in a few profound words. In every fat book there is a skinny book trying to get out.
- Understate! Power in writing is achieved by backing off the obvious. Don’t club the readers to make a point.
- Maintain point of view. Whose story is this?
- Tell your story using all the senses. Readers want a full experience.
- Motivation. What does the hero want? If he does not want it badly enough, you don’t have a story. You also don’t have a story if your villain is not equally motivated. The villain must roadblock the hero at every opportunity.
- Think movie. Today’s readers are not yesterday’s readers. Today’s readers want everything to be happening on stage. Keep everything current. No flashbacks. Weave past events into current dialog so the reader discovers the characters’ history though what is happening now. Stepping off stage is a bump in the story that today’s readers won’t tolerate. A safe structure for your book is the 3-act play. Learn the form.
- Write for the love of it. Wondering if your book will be published or sell is too much pressure.
Here is a revealing activity. Give everyone in class a pen and paper and ask them to draw a cow.
You’ll hear a lot of laughter as people try. In a few minutes you’ll be looking at a bunch of 2nd grade cows. Why? Because the last time they probably drew a cow was in the 2nd grade.
And that’s the point: Just because you can imagine something in your mind does not mean you can render it on paper. Great artists are always learning and practicing how to draw better and better cows; they draw cows daily.
- Responsibility to say something worth saying. Cory Maxwell, Deseret Book’s Director of Publishing, is fond of saying, “A book ought to have a mission.” What a profound idea—art must entertain and have a purpose! Can such art be achieved? Yes. Great artists do it all the time. What sets these artists apart is their feeling of responsibility to say something worth saying. They communicate it with their own unique voice. They say something worth saying in a way that no one else can say by means of their own chosen genre.
I make you this promise: If you will pay the price to say something worth saying, you will never have to worry about finding an audience; the audience will find you.
- Be accountable for your gift. The ability to communicate in any art form is power: power to influence, power to uplift, or power to tear down. As I have stated, if you are willing to acknowledge the true Source of your gift, you will also feel the weight of responsibility to develop it through hard work and then say something worth saying. You will feel driven to beautify and uplift in a skilled and entertaining manner.
But too often we see talent misused. Unfortunately we are bombarded with art that is degrading, embarrassing, insulting and horrifying. Be aware that very little effort (or talent) is required to titillate readers’ base emotions and evoke sordid reactions. Any dime-novel writer can do it. But skill and discipline are required of the artisan who is able to address meaty subjects, not offend readers’ sensitivities, and still achieve a story that can be told and retold.
And that is quite a challenge. On the one hand, fiction is at its best when it deals with extremes—for example, extreme good and extreme evil. Moreover, fiction is an ideal vehicle to explore the difficult subjects of humanity. But to do so, we must polarize our protagonist and antagonist. These rules usually apply or fiction doesn’t work. Knowing this, writers often are tempted to go too far in their exploration of evil. They don’t learn the art of saying just enough and not crossing the line of propriety.
But it can be done.
I urge you to consider Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Ms. Lee deals with insanity, racial prejudice, ignorance, poverty, injustice and even rape…and we come away inspired. We want to read her story again and again. We want to read it to our children. Harper Lee wrote a meaty story and remained accountable. Likewise, you must be accountable for your gift. Become artists like Harper Lee.
You and your talent are needed. Your gift is rare. Be humble enough to acknowledge the Source. Take the responsibility to develop your gift through hard work. Take the further responsibility to say something worthwhile. After all is said and done, be accountable. Pay the price to find out why you were given such an ability and learn what you are expected to do with it. You are in for a great ride!
To receive a sample of my book, The Three Pillars of Zion, click here.
This talk was given at the Festival of Writing and Scholarship Dinner, March 31, 2005